Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

We Must Stop Relying on Profiling

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

We Must Stop Relying on Profiling

Article excerpt

He was described as a beautiful boy with soulful brown eyes - moral, empathetic and gentle. Captain of the high school wrestling team and nominated to the National Honor Society, he was also a diligent student with high-achieving friends who knew they could call him at 2 a.m. if they needed a favor. "Saving lives brings me joy," he once tweeted of why he became a lifeguard.

But now Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sits accused of violently ending several lives, maiming others and inflicting terror with homemade bombs during the Boston Marathon on April 15.

Far south of Boston, in Sanford, Fla., under different circumstances, a young man triggered unwarranted alarm in February 2012 merely for wearing a hoodie and walking in a gated community where an onlooker assumed he had no right to be.

Because George Zimmerman felt uncomfortable with the young man's appearance, Trayvon Martin ended up dead.

The cases, both of which have triggered outrage, have one critical thing in common. Both show how lethally wrong we can be when we try to predict people's behavior according to the stories and stereotypes we've recorded in our heads about how they should or shouldn't look or act.

I share the outrage over the fact that the killer of an unarmed black man doing nothing wrong got off without criminal sanction.

But the outrage over a Rolling Stone magazine cover photo said to glamorize Tsarnaev is misplaced. In running that rock star-like picture of an accused bomber, Rolling Stone was making precisely this point: Appearances can lie, and terrorists don't necessarily come packaged in long beards as recluses.

They can be the popular all-American athlete who smokes dope. They can embrace popular culture. They can even be hunks.

Based on his appearance and what little people knew of him, "terrorist" would not have been an outcome predicted for Tsarnaev.

It's not that the friends, teachers and other acquaintances lied. It's that they missed a side he worked to conceal.

He was, concluded the Rolling Stone article, a "deeply fractured boy" who didn't start out believing in radical rhetoric, but, "As each small disappointment wore on his family, ultimately ripping them apart, it also furthered Jahar's (his nickname) own disintegration - a series of quiet yet powerful body punches. …

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